With future uncertain, Oromo Olympian visits Minnesota

Silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia
Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia stands on the podium during the medal ceremony after winning silver in the men's marathon in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
Ezra Shaw | Getty Images

Ethiopian Olympic marathoner Feyisa Lilesa hasn't returned home since protesting the Ethiopian government during the Rio games last month.

Lilesa is a member of the Oromo community, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. While crossing the finish line in his silver medal-winning race, he crossed his wrists in an attempt to draw global attention to recent deadly protests in his home region, Oromia. He later told reporters that Ethiopia's government is killing his people.

Now, Lilesa is traveling the United States instead of returning home. Last weekend, he visited with members of Minnesota's Oromo community, which members say is the largest Oromo diaspora in the world — about 40,000 people.

"[The] Oromo people in Minnesota, they call it Little Oromia," he said.

Speaking through an interpreter to MPR News during his visit, Lilesa made two things clear: First, he wants to compete again — and soon. And he wants the U.S. government to help stop human rights violations against the Oromo people in Ethiopia.

The Oromo community claims a long history of abuse and persecution by the Ethiopian government, which led to deadly protests last November. According to the BBC, 400 peaceful protesters and others were killed.

Lilesa said he knows that, as an athlete he has an opportunity to speak out — but it comes at a price.

Because of his protest, Lilesa said, returning to Ethiopia is not an option. He told reporters in Rio that he would be killed if he went home.

He said he plans to continue his U.S. travels until he can find a place to settle and compete.

Meanwhile, he said, the most difficult part of this journey is being away from his family.

He left behind his wife, two children, his parents and siblings.

"I got the values which I'm upholding from this family," he said. "And they just know what I stand for is bigger than us."

For now, Lilesa's future remains uncertain. According to The Associated Press, he is in the U.S. on a special skills visa, which will allow him to practice and compete until January.

After his visit to Minnesota, Lilesa headed for Washington, D.C. From there, he said, he'd like to find a place — ideally, one in a high altitude — to train, so he can compete in a world race within three months.

While his fate is unclear, what is certain, he said, is that he'll continue to raise awareness and advocate for the Oromo people.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.